Over the last weekend I finished watching Chernobyl, an HBO mini-series that deals with the 1986 nuclear disaster which shook the world. The five-episode series explores the various walks of life that the event affected. Not only is it informative and investigative in nature, the series is a time-capsule that gives you a clear picture of the former USSR and its propaganda.
But this post is not about the series. It’s about a book — Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, which I read in a much faster pace than I watched the series.
The book is a first-person narration of hundreds of interviews that the author had with the survivors, re-settlers, scientists, doctors and various other people connected with the Chernobyl disaster. It is especially hard to describe the book in a few words. On one hand, there were people who came back to Chernobyl (even after being evacuated); these people were in love with the serenity of the place; they didn’t want to leave the place ever again. On the other hand were the victims who suffered from radiation; women who gave birth to crippled children; men who went in the highly radioactive area and who later became invalids.
I found that the author deliberately made no attempt to correct the details given by the interviewees even if they were wrong in some cases. This very fact makes the book more authentic than other attempt to picture the actual scenario.
The book is full of stories of great sacrifice people made. Again and again I found people who committed to daring tasks that had very grave consequences in so far as health was concerned. Not because they were promised awards and accolades but because they wanted to save others. Men went inside the reactor building knowing fully well what future awaits them. Men volunteered to “clean” the highly radioactive roof of the exploded reactor. A woman gave birth to a dead girl and even after that she volunteered to help. I only have respect for these unsung heroes. In one of the interviews, Sergei Sobolev, an interviewee, says,
In terms of our readiness for self-sacrifice, we have no equals.
Truer words are seldom said.
The last time I read a book on human endurance was Miklós Nyiszli’s Auschwitz. But Voices from Chernobyl is more a picture of a post-apocalyptic world than that of human resilience. The author built an outstanding picture of post-disaster Chernobyl no less horrifying than a war-torn Syria. I doubt there’s any other book that depicts the human aspect of the disaster in so well and so detailed manner.
Also shocking from the book is the amount of carelessness by Soviet Communist Party which simply wanted to prevent a panic by muting scientists. There were physicists, doctors, chemical engineers who came forward asking the government to evacuate people in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. These voices were silenced by the state machinery in the name of spreading panic. A lot of innocent lives could have been saved if only the State were not this inept.
This book is probably the most thought-provoking one I read this year. Side by side this book draws a picture of contradiction — thousands of people who came forward to save others, and a handful of powerful yet incompetent “leaders” who failed to take action. Alexievich made a bold attempt at bringing together all them in her seminal work.